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Addressing Juvenile Justice Concerns in Response to the Shelby County Investigation
August 8, 2012 Posted by

The following post appears courtesy of the Civil Rights Division and the Access to Justice Initiative.

Recently, a group of advocates, practitioners, and researchers specializing in juvenile justice issues gathered at the Department of Justice with representatives from the Department’s Civil Rights Division and Access to Justice Initiative (ATJ) for a Juvenile Justice Roundtable discussion. 

The meeting was convened to elicit thoughts about potential remedies to the problems relating to the violation of juvenile offenders’ constitutional rights that plague the juvenile justice system.  Many of these problems were cited in the department’s findings released earlier this spring in its investigation of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee. 

This investigation marks the first time that the department exercised its authority under 42 U.S.C. § 14141 to take measures to safeguard the constitutional rights of juvenile offenders.  Specifically, the law makes it illegal for government actors involved in the administration of juvenile justice to deprive juveniles of their constitutional rights and protections, and allows the attorney general to take legal action to eliminate such behavior when there is reasonable cause to suspect that a violation has occurred.

The department’s investigation of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County spanned a roughly two-year period beginning in August 2009, triggered by concerns of local residents and officials regarding the administration of due process and equal protection rights of children in the system.  With the cooperation of the juvenile court, the department reviewed case data from a five-year period, in the process uncovering three categories of constitutional violations:  lack of due process, unequal treatment across racial groups, and harsh conditions of confinement.

Lack of due process existed in many forms.  For example, the department found that children often received notice of the charges being levied against them shortly before their hearing, which left the children without the ability to meaningfully prepare to respond to the charges.   Investigators also found that, over a four-year period, the court detained 815 children for longer than three days before granting them a probable cause hearing. 

In another instance, a Magistrate Judge did not allow witnesses to testify on behalf of a juvenile defendant before transferring her case to the adult system, even though the witnesses were present and willing to do so.  The investigation further revealed that some juvenile defenders (the equivalent of public defenders for the juvenile system) failed to be competent and zealous advocates for their clients and that juvenile court staff do not adequately protect children from self-incrimination.

In terms of equal protection, the department found statistically significant racial disparities in the treatment of children, with African American children disproportionately represented in most phases of the Shelby County juvenile justice system.  For instance, statistical analysis revealed that black children were significantly less likely to receive the benefit of more lenient options, such as a warning, than were their white peers.  Black children also were found less likely to receive warnings before being subjected to punishment, more likely to be detained prior to attending a probable cause hearing, and more likely to have their cases recommended for transfer to the adult system.  These disparities, which indicate a violation of the children’s equal protection rights, existed even after factoring in legal and social variables, such as a child’s prior record, age, gender, and school attendance, among other things. 

With respect to confinement conditions, the department found that Juvenile Court staff sometimes placed children in “restraint chairs” without supervision for long periods of time, in violation of the Shelby County facility’s own policy.  When strapped into restraint chairs, children are unable to move their arms or legs.  One child, for example, was detained in the chair in isolation for nearly two hours, well in excess of the maximum 20 minutes that facility policy allows.  Other children in the facility were subjected to pressure point control tactics, a method that uses pain compliance and joint manipulation, such as bending a child’s wrist backwards, in order to force the child to cooperate.

In response to these findings, ATJ worked alongside the Civil Rights Division to assemble a group of leaders in the field of juvenile justice to attend a roundtable discussion on potential remedies.  Among the more than 20 groups participating in the discussion were the Campaign for Youth Justice, the Children’s Center for Law and Policy, the Juvenile Law Center, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Focusing on the areas of due process and equal protection, the attendees drew on their expertise in devising several suggestions for ways in which the department might move forward in encouraging and implementing reform in the juvenile justice system.  The department looks forward to continued collaboration with these stakeholders as it strives to build a juvenile justice system that embodies the constitutional values of fairness and justice.

For more information on the Department’s findings, see the April 26, 2012 remarks of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez and the official Shelby County Investigation Report.

For more information on the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, please visit www.justice.gov/crt. | Learn more about the Access to Justice Initiative, visit www.justice.gov/atj.

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